Nation & World

Will caravans become 'new method' of migration?

Members of the caravan that set off from Central America aiming to reach the United States are seen in San Pedro Tapanatepec on Oct. 29, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten
Members of the caravan that set off from Central America aiming to reach the United States are seen in San Pedro Tapanatepec on Oct. 29, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Carolyn Van Houten

SAN SALVADOR — As the sun rose on the Salvador del Mundo monument in San Salvador, dozens of would-be migrants with small backpacks and duffel bags trickled into the central plaza. They settled on benches and stairs to await instructions.

Within an hour, at least 100 had gathered. By 8 a.m., about 300 — all of them responding to the same WhatsApp group message about when and where to meet. From the far corner of the plaza, a voice called out “Let’s go,” jolting the group into action.

Within moments, all the migrants had stood up, gathered their belongings, and walked through the plaza, across the street and past a gas station — their first steps in a potential 1,600-mile journey to the United States.

The group, which left San Salvador on Wednesday, became part of at least the fourth Central American caravan to form since mid-October, when one left San Pedro Sula in Honduras and headed north.

Caravans were once used sparingly to spotlight a particular problem. A group of Central American mothers, for example, has traveled through Mexico each year for 14 years searching for their sons and daughters who disappeared on the migrant trail. The Mesoamerican Caravan for a Good Life has organized migrant caravans for years, including one in March that gained international attention.

But experts now predict that caravan-style treks could become a more frequent scene along the decades-old migration routes from the region.

Part of the reason could be the attention given to the caravans by U.S. political races. This year’s caravans have coincided with the U.S. midterm election and President Donald Trump’s attempts to portray the migrants as a threat that requires military mobilization at the southern border.

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The result has been to raise the profile of the caravans and how they take shape in Central America and elsewhere. The unintended consequence could be even more such groups heading northward in the future, immigrant experts say.

“We haven’t previously seen caravans as an organizational strategy to get to the U.S. and cross the border,” said Celia Medrano, chief program officer at Cristosal, a San Salvador-based organization that works with migrants. “This is going to be the new method of irregular immigration.”

Traveling in groups is perceived as safer and cheaper for migrants, who often pay $7,000 to $10,000 to human smugglers called coyotes to avoid the dangers of crossing Mexico. Migrants don’t pay to join a caravan and many travel without much cash to avoid being robbed. Rather than carry many provisions, members of the caravan often rely on the generosity of people along the way to feed them.

But the caravans also present tough logistic and political issues along the routes.

On Oct. 22, Trump threatened to cut off aid to Central American countries if they did not stop the flow of migrants, putting even more pressure on the governments to take a stand.

“The government institutions in all of the countries had become accustomed to making invisible the phenomenon [of undocumented migrants], looking the other way knowing that thousands of people are crossing underground,” said Medrano, the Cristosal regional director. “Now they can’t deny it, they can’t ignore it and they can’t avoid confronting it because it is right under their noses.”

In Honduras, the caravan stoked already high political tensions between President Juan Orlando Hernández and opposition leaders who call his re-election fraudulent. Fliers promoting the Oct. 12 caravan openly criticized the Honduran government and blamed the current administration for creating the conditions that migrants flee. Hernandez has tried to lure migrants back to Honduras with the promise of employment.

Both Guatemala and Honduras temporarily closed their borders in October, even though a regional agreement allows citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua to pass freely between borders with proper documentation. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador has said he will not comply with the U.S. demand to stop migrants from leaving.

Yet while the Salvadoran government recognizes its citizens’ right to leave, it also felt compelled to warn would-be migrants about what is often a harrowing process.

Police, immigration officials and child-protection institutions were dispatched to the plaza where migrants gathered to speak to them about the travel documents they would need and the dangers of the journey. The underlying message was clear: Don’t go.

“We’ve talked to most of these Salvadoran citizens about the dangers of irregular migration to raise awareness,” said Evelyn Marroquin, director of the General Directorate of Migration and Immigration, in an official statement. “In the last minute they can reflect and give up this voyage that can be so grave for them and their families.”

These campaigns are “too late” for migrants who have already made the decision and understand the risks, said Medrano. The government would have more of an impact, she said, if it worked to reduce the crime and corruption that drive so many migrants to leave.

The wave of caravans has been particularly challenging for the Mexican government, which has dedicated extensive resources to helping its northern neighbor prevent Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border, by deporting them and making their journey more difficult.

The Mexican government has tried multiple strategies to stop the caravan — repression at borders, promises of work permits, and offers for asylum — but to no avail. There are still an estimated 4,200 migrants from the first caravan heading to Mexico.

Trying to stop the caravan places Mexico in a political dilemma. While the United States threatens political retribution for not blocking the caravans, Mexican citizens appear to overwhelmingly support the migrants and their journey.

“They are caught between the concerns of the U.S. government, which they want to be responsive to, and Mexican public opinion, which they have to listen to,” said Andrew Selee, the president of the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

As more migrants have banded together, caravans are gaining legitimacy in the eyes of would-be migrants.

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“If images keep being transmitted of people traveling together, and if those people make it further along, more people are going to see the groups as a safe way to travel and, hopefully, be able to reach the U.S. border and request asylum,” said Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and migrant rights in the Washington Office on Latin America, a research organization.

Even for groups that assist migrants, travel by the thousands poses new difficulties.

Despite the outpouring of support for the caravans by many migrant rights organizations, these large groups may unknowingly complicate the work of networks designed to help them.

Mexico’s network of migrant shelters and migrant rights, known as Zona Norte, said in a statement that it was concerned that the caravans could overwhelm existing humanitarian resources on the Mexican side of the border.

The statement suggests that asylum seekers at the northern border “distribute themselves in smaller groups in the different border cities, which would allow better attention to basic needs such as food and first aid.”

The prospect that caravans could become more common hinges partially on what happens once the early groups reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Signs that their asylum applications are being rejected, for example, could deter future groups, said Meyer. If caravans result in mass deportations, Central American institutions tasked with receiving and reintegrating deportees could collapse, said Medrano.

But as long as the caravans remain a safe and viable option for migrating, experts believe they will continue.

“It’s the new way,” said Medrano, “of making visible what was before invisible.”

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The Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow and Kevin Sieff in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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